REDMOND — Peter Lee, the computer scientist who is assuming worldwide leadership of Microsoft Research, assured a crowd of university researchers this morning that the group’s mission isn’t changing as a result of the massive Microsoft reorganization.
Lee, the DARPA and Carnegie Mellon veteran who previously led Microsoft Research USA, said the research group will continue to strive to 1) Advance the field in areas where it chooses to do research; 2) Transfer the best research results into Microsoft’s products; and 3) Ensure the future of Microsoft and the computing field.
That has been Microsoft Research’s mission since it was founded 22 years ago, and that part about the company’s researchers choosing their areas of focus remains especially important, Lee said.
“No part of Microsoft’s business can tell us what to do,” he said, explaining that Microsoft Research will continue to work from the bottom up, focusing in large part on basic “blue sky” research without a specific end goal in mind.
The comments signal status quo in Microsoft Research despite calls from some investors over the years to align the company’s researchers more specifically with the goals of its product groups. Microsoft overall is shifting to a new organizational structure that groups its teams into functional groups focused on broad disciplines, attempting to help the company become more nimble against fast-moving rivals.
Rick Rashid, who built and led Microsoft Research for more than two decades, will be leaving the position and joining Microsoft’s new Operating Systems Group.
Lee cited the example of Microsoft researchers a few years ago who wanted to explore neural networks — computer systems modeled on the nervous system and human brain — to transform speech recognition. Lee himself acknowledged that he would have been skeptical of the idea, but the work in the field led to long-awaited improvements in speech recognition that have spread throughout the industry.
He explained, “Management is challenged to put aside its own technical judgments and assessments and prejudices and just bet on the people. That bet sets you off for the possibility of an unexpected outcome.”
But it’s not all about “blue sky” research. Lee concluded his talk by pointing to a wide range of Microsoft products that Microsoft Research has contributed technology to, from Windows and Office to the Xbox business.
Answering a question from the audience later, Lee said the outside world sometimes doesn’t have full appreciation or complete knowledge of the technology it does transfer into Microsoft products. In reality, “you see huge uptake of MSR’s research into product teams and other places,” he said.